Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Challengers of the Unknown must live!

It’s easier to find a movie, say, or a book, or some music act that most other people seem to be overlooking or undervaluing, than a comic book. I don’t mean a series that doesn’t sell very well, or something from the indies (which by definition is swimming against the current). Most serious comics fans will usually know better than filmgoers seeking out the latest blockbuster or whatever moves them specifically, book buyers seeking out their own familiar commodities, or music lovers grooving on their favorites, just what exactly is available. Sometimes it’s merely a matter of not having enough funds to cover everything that looks interesting in the comics shop, or a lack of general availability, that prevents certain titles from being read. Most comics that sell worse than others usually suffer from a lower profile, or perhaps a lack of a galvanizing creative direction, which again circles back to the fact that there are many comics published on a weekly basis, and very few readers capable of actually buying them all. There are certainly really good books that seem to sell not so much really well for reasons that don’t sound quite that good, but again, that may simply be that they just don’t have the buzz, or that most the buzz is going elsewhere, and whatever remains simply isn’t enough, or that unwarranted bad buzz or an inexplicable lack of buzz swallows perfectly worthy projects whole…

I could probably talk circles around that, so let’s just move on. The point of this introduction is, it can sometimes be a little difficult to understand how a really good comic book can be overlooked, given the kind of community exists around this medium (and inversely, really easy to understand, given the community as we all know it). I mean to talk about Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN book, originally published as a mini-series 1991, and eventually reprinted as CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN MUST DIE!, after the team had become famous for such works as BATMAN: THE LONG HALLOWEEN and SUPERMAN FOR ALL SEASONS. Still, I’d wager that very few people know this story even exists, and it’s a darn shame.

Loeb has in recent years distanced himself from comics work, having achieved a great deal of success with such recent efforts as SUPERMAN/BATMAN and HULK, not to mention to epochal collaboration with Jim Lee on the Batman story arc “Hush,” partly as I would assume to the fact that many fans have found it increasingly difficult that he has any real talent, beyond a massive amount of hype. I find this to be a terrific travesty, because to my mind, Jeph Loeb is easily one of the finest writers of modern comics, capable of finding an inner monologue to any given character, whether iconic or obscure, and maybe it’s just because that’s exactly the kind of skill I admire in a writer, but that’s not by far a bad attribute. Those fans claim he’s horribly formulaic and predictable, that his stories always feel less inspired in their conclusions than in their blockbuster setups. I would perhaps counter-argue that any good story ought to have an ending worth talking about, especially if the rest of the story was as compelling as everyone made it seem, but maybe that’s just me being difficult and contrary again. If it seems too “comic booky,” then maybe it’s the creator’s way of making the reader think about the medium in a more serious way. That’s exactly the kind of ending CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN MUST DIE! concludes with, with a villain that only really appears at the climax of a story that had spent all its time examining the individual members of the Challs, as they’re affectionately known, as they perhaps never have been before.

Along with Loeb, of course, for this story, is his most famous collaborator, artist Tim Sale, whose most recent claim to fame was his work on the TV show HEROES, which turned out in later seasons to be more unfortunate than it first seemed. Sale initially provided the finished paintings of a clairvoyant artist in the early episodes, and it was a clever link for a series that otherwise shunned comic book conventions. Then, of course, Sale’s art reappeared in the second season, well after that original character had been killed off, and like the series as a whole, Sale’s continued participation was viewed in terms of stagnation rather than inspiration (or perhaps, continuity!). Aside from what now appears to be an aborted project (CAPTAIN AMERICA: WHITE) begun a few years back, Sale, too, has all but vanished as a regular comics presence.

It does seem appropriate, that Loeb and Sale might have ended in without much ceremony their comics careers, since their Challengers work was equally overlooked. Readers of this blog might recall that I originally discovered, or at least started reading it, thanks to a series of quarter bin raids that forced me to track down the rest of the story. Appropriately, I found a dirt-cheap used copy of the trade collection. I can honestly say that this earliest Loeb-Sale effort is, in my opinion, their finest. I wish I could then properly explain how it was left to and remained in obscurity, except that really good things usually fail to find a really big audience.

This was Loeb’s first comic, even! I confess to still not have all that much experience with his screen work, from before or after, but the remarkable maturity and complexity on display in …MUST DIE! is enviable by any standard, in any medium, clear in some ways that Loeb was not at the time concerned with conventions. He tackled a team of heroes who for decades were viewed as Fantastic Four knockoffs, even as they remained something of a DC underground favorite, as with many Jack Kirby creations, popping up every now and again, rebooted past the conclusions in MUST DIE! for later appearances, though it’s probably been about a decade or more since the last time. In the first issue of the eight-issue mini-series, Loeb and Sale reduce the team of four plus one (members Prof, Rocky, Ace, and Red, along with assistant June) to three, after blowing up Challenger Mountain and most of Challengerville, not to mention Prof and June. For the remainder of the series, Rocky, Ace, and Red, having disbanded, redefine themselves, growing apart, and assume the civilian lives they left behind when they originally “cheated death” and started “living on borrowed time.” (When you think about it, the Challs would have made a picture-perfect 1980s TV show, and then 2000s summer blockbuster.)

CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN MUST DIE! deserves to be remembered as a comic book classic, and ought to be part of the perennial reprint parade, prepped for an Absolute edition, and lauded loudly as the first genius pairing of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, as well as its definitive legacy. What many creators struggle for many years to accomplish with a given franchise they managed in eight issues, and in many ways, it’s almost better that the Challengers belong to obscurity before and after, since there really aren’t any fans to argue with over such a monumental story. If the team must be remembered for something, this more than earns such a distinction. It’s a calling card for potential, proved to be exactly that for Loeb and Sale, for what a comic book could do, and what even C-level characters can accomplish. What more could you ask for?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Quarter Bin #15 "American Splendor"

I do seem to write most about superhero comics, but that’s not all I’m capable of processing. For instance, let’s swing the other way and spend some time with the one guy who probably did the most to give readers a completely different concept, Harvey Pekar.

Technically springboarding off:

From November 2006-February 2007.

Most people will know about Pekar through the movie of the same name, the 2003 AMERICAN SPLENDOR starring Paul Giamatti (the big role that helped ignite his leading man career, after years of standout supporting roles). Noting that it came out in 2003 is kind of big for me, because that’s by no means the year I first saw it. It’s another of those things that’s a little of a mystery to present me, but for some reason, even though I was always a fan of Giamatti, I grew more and more hesitant to see the movie the more critics gushed over it. It was only Giamatti, in fact, who finally convinced me to give it a chance. The truth was, I’d never heard of Harvey Pekar before, and to suddenly have all this praise going to a guy who for all intents had been completely invisible a year earlier just seemed like typical critic bullshit to me, gobbling up the peculiar new item on the block just because it was exotic and seemed to prove some point or other, and otherwise probably wouldn’t have been noticed at all. You might recall that for a while, Pekar became quite the hot commodity, writing pieces for a variety of high profile publications, putting comics storytelling in places it wasn’t typically seen. I found at least that interesting.

Anyway, I finally did get around to seeing it, and while preparing to write this piece, I watched it again, and it strikes me almost as a junior cousin to MAN ON THE MOON, the 1999 Jim Carrey movie about avant garde comedian Andy Kaufman, in which Giamatti happens to costar. You may recall that one of Kaufman’s most infamous public appearances was on David Letterman’s old NBC show back in the 1980s, in which he had a confrontation with professional wrestler Jerry Lawler (there was coffee involved). Pekar was a regular on Letterman’s show, and may have made his biggest pop cultural mark on his last appearance, in which he finally rethought his participation. I assume there was a certain amount of appeal in telling the story of how exactly that happened, just who this Harvey Pekar really was. The Letterman connection interests me, anyway.

In many ways, Pekar really is another Kaufman, a social oddity whose sensibilities don’t easily translate, which is funny, because he tried to make a living (never really happened, though) talking about his everyday problems in comics form, one of the first true independent voices, who got to have his chance at the limelight thanks to the underground movement that grew out of the 1960s scene that also gave us R. Crumb, someone Pekar knew personally (and no doubt facilitated his ambition more than he ever appreciated).

In a lot of ways, Pekar’s comics are a direct predecessor to the Twitter generation, whose ilk includes bloggers like yours truly and the Facebook crowd. (Imagine Harvey with a smartphone!) While he tended to write about only the depressing episodes and thoughts that reflected his general pessimistic outlook on life, Pekar still managed to chronicle his life in a way that had previously been reserved for biographies, all in comics form (since he couldn’t draw his own, Harvey relied on a vast network of illustrators, including Crumb). He originally published his comics out of his own pocket. Obviously by the time of the movie, there was interest in providing him with slightly wider distribution. DC imprint Vertigo handled Pekar’s graphic novel THE QUITTER, and then the new AMERICAN SPLENDOR I eventually got my hands on.

It’s funny about that, too, because a friend of mine gave me those, and I was originally reluctant to read them, because as you can tell, I don’t typically read comics that don’t feature superheroes (I admit it!). Pekar’s writing isn’t the most eloquent, and his episodic storytelling can border on the trivial if handled incorrectly. In many ways, it’s like reading a comic book TV show (which does make you wonder if Pekar wasn’t subconsciously drawing on television for inspiration, or why no one has thought to turn AMERICAN SPLENDOR into a small screen project; HBO released the movie, I might add), a sitcom or one of those dramas that would probably get high critical praise but generally terrible ratings. The film itself is a mix between documentary, some static animation, and typical movie storytelling. You could turn Harvey’s life into a cartoon, or even a comic strip, and still not lose much in translation. One might almost imagine PEARLS BEFORE SWINE’s Stephen Pastis drawing inspiration from Pekar.

As you might imagine, “American Splendor” is a pretty ironic epitaph for this enterprise, but in the end, is pretty reasonable, too. Harvey Pekar was a man who very much trusted his worldview, and despite his own cynicism managed to make a real mark, simply by telling his own story, one mundane anecdote at a time.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Heroes and Dragons and Vampires

Last week I had my first opportunity to visit Heroes and Dragons in probably two years. This particular comics shop used to have two locations in Colorado Springs, both sides of town. I was a regular from practically the moment I moved into town, having quickly determined that it was the most convenient store in town (I had two other options; Bargain Comics, which later became Escape Velocity, was always close second). When the recession forced it to consolidate and basically stay on the other end of town, I sniffed back a few tears, said goodbye to another great era of my comics experience (did I ever mention the horrible irony of three different stores either moving or closing during my original period reading comics? I miss thee, Zimmies and Ray’s 3Cs, and still wish All About Comics and Hobbies had stayed put, and probably not renamed itself The Keep, which was another horrible irony), but was prepared to move on. Not in the way that I “have” moved on this year, “quitting” reading comics for the second time, but onto Escape Velocity and Midtown

I don’t want to sound too flippant, because I really did miss Heroes and Dragons, was sad to see it go, and kept obsessing on a way to visit its new location, no matter how impractical it seemed. (Should I mention here that I am differently-mobile, in that I don’t drive, and rarely take the bus?) I had some personal time to eat up thanks to Borders going out of business, so I took a vacation last week, stayed with my sister, and that happens to be on that end of town. I timed my visit for Wednesday. As if you have to ask why.

I’ve got to say, I don’t think the move was as terrifically beneficial as the owners thought it would be (not that, in some ways, it wasn’t necessary, thanks to draconian and increasingly elitist mall financial practices). It may be actually, that business is actually quite good, but I arrived only a few hours after the store had opened, timed so that the new product should have been put out already. (Okay, so the clerk had lots of boxes clearly sitting out in the open, and seemed to think his time was better spent with aerobics; I’m being literal here.) Still, I wasn’t greeted with great comparisons considering my recent experience with Escape Velocity. I was generally appalled. The store seemed only tangentially interested in new releases. I don’t know if it reorders more furiously than it initially orders, or if “Richard Simmons” was even lazier, relatively speaking, than he seemed, but suffice to say, I was disappointed. The trade collection, meanwhile, was basically exactly the same as it had been two years ago. Yay for consistency! Boo for complacency! That’s a matter of business, too, but come on! Anyway, I did end up with several great back issues, though, which I will write about in a future Quarter Bin, and the new RASL, which brings me to the concluding portion of this latest post. You know the drill.

This is the official preview of the September relaunch (next month!), complete with the JUSTICE LEAGUE excerpt from Geoff Johns and Jim Lee that leads me more and more to consider it a de facto ALL STAR JUSTICE LEAGUE, which only makes me feel better about it. Anyway, aside from the fact that the giant stack of these freebies was sitting away from customer reach on the counter, I was very happy to find it available.

The concluding chapter to “War of the Green Lanterns.” I know I’ve previously stated that, aside from the other exception I’ve talked about elsewhere, I decided I could wait for the collection to finally read this arc, but c’mon! It was there! In so many ways, stripping Hal of the ring is absolutely the smartest thing Geoff could have done. Next to giving it back to Sinestro. Suffice to say, I’m a happy Emerald Reader.

RASL #11 (Cartoon)
Along with BATMAN, INC. this is the book I’ve deliberately continued to read in 2011, and I’ve been darn lucky to find each new issue of both. This one was particularly serendipitous, since I’d overlooked the particular shelves it was located on, even though I’d tried to be as thorough as possible, trying to find the magic I ultimately decided simply wasn’t there anymore (then again, maybe a store like Escape Velocity can give me that magic on a sporadic basis, and Heroes simply can’t). Jeff Smith’s follow-up to BONE continues to dazzle at least this reader. To October!

SUPREME POWER #1 of 4 (Marvel MAX)
Kyle Higgins, writer of the forthcoming new NIGHTWING series, came to my attention during a recent visit to the Comic Book Resources message board as someone far more worthy of my attention than I’d previously considered. I was able to find this particular example of his recent efforts to confirm this newfound faith.

I love how the “Captain Thunder” family is used this issue. I’m also glad that I’ve managed to read every issue so far of this event book. One more to go!

MYSTIC #1 (CrossGen/Marvel)
Surprisingly or not, I never got into the original CrossGen experiment. Most attempts to build an entire comics line at the drop of a hat usually tend to create a bunch of comics that are patently ripping off something else, or otherwise trying too hard to duplicate, well, something else, all with the guise of “being something different.” I’ll admit CrossGen had art that was basically the complete opposite of what originally put Image on the map (which has now been converted to Comics Characters Welcomed), but in my experience, when writers try to write new stories with an artificial impetus like “create new comics line,” the results aren’t pretty. Dark Horse (and many other companies) has discovered that the more times you, say, recreate Doctor Solar, the more likely you’ll actually create something perhaps worth looking at. That may be the case here, too. Besides, the real reason I bought this one was AIR writer G. Willow Wilson. Maybe the original MYSTIC actually was awesome, or even comparable to this experience. Maybe my sister has been having me watch too much CHARMED lately (very disappointed Heroes didn’t have that comic, or IDW’s G.I. Joe, which Escape Velocity doesn’t carry, even though the COBRA books are some of the best comics I’ve ever read; which is another irony, because the IDW preview for its acquisition from DDP was among the last comics I bought at the old location; please stop me if I’m referencing far too much to keep up with). Anyway, Wilson does not disappoint. The one thing I will absolutely say positive about Marvel in 2011 is that it is giving G. Willow Wilson money to write comics. Thank you, Marvel.

The final issue before Reboot City concludes “Grounded” and is basically J. Michael Straczynski and/or Chris Roberson’s answer to “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” I thought that was a nice touch.

Please, as if I was going to pass up this opportunity. Written by Tony Bedard, too, who will have my everlasting gratitude for penning the classic GREAT TEN, hopefully one day to receive its proper appreciation as a masterpiece. Need I go on?

Which brings us to one final note, something I bought at Wal-mart:

This is a magazine-format collection of several issues from the would-be movie icon’s past, the second edition (I skipped the previous one I’d found at Escape Velocity), including “Nor Fear” from GREEN LANTERN #s 1-3 (the first time I’ve read the whole story, since for some reason back in 2005 I wasn’t prepared to read Geoff Johns doing GL on a monthly basis, something that didn’t last even a year), plus an Alan Moore story from GREEN LANTERN CORPS ANNUAL #2 featuring a previous version of Abin Sur’s grand undoing, and the same (ALL STAR) JUSTICE LEAGUE preview I talked about earlier. I like something like this being available for wide consumption. The comics industry will never recover in my eyes until you can find issues of the books you’ll actually want to read at places like Wal-mart and Toys R Us. I won’t hold Sam’s Club to the kinds of packs they used to have. I will one day blackmail them.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Quarter Bin #14 "Genesis"

For some reason or another, I can no longer explain, but back in 1997, I originally only read the first and fourth chapters of the GENESIS crossover event. This was back when DC was doing annual crossover events that typically played out weekly in the main title, and spread into the ongoing series then being published during that month. I don’t think there’s a lot of respect going around for those events these days. Readers are more used to sprawling mini-series that play out over half a year and involve not just crossovers but spinoff mini-series, stuff like that, and there’s been plenty of backlash, because since CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS and SECRET WARS, there seems to have been an event, several events, every single year, and it’s always a struggle to keep up with, whether because of the sheer number of books or the basic cost.

Anyway, I’m not really going to talk about crossover events in general, but GENESIS specifically. Or rather:

GENESIS #s 1-4 (DC)
From October 1997.

These event books were typically assigned to some of the big-time creators, the ones who happened to be hot at that time, such as Dan Jurgens with ZERO HOUR (1994), Mark Waid’s UNDERWORLD UNLEASHED (1995) or Grant Morrison’s DC ONE MILLION (1998). John Byrne, who wrote GENESIS, had been a creative force since the 1980s, with THE MAN OF STEEL chief among his DC credentials. During this particular period, he was involved in WONDER WOMAN and JACK KIRBY’S FOURTH WORLD, both titles being mythology-rich, which was appropriate, given that GENESIS was itself another attempt to bring, well, Jack Kirby’s Fourth World back into relevance.

The whole reason why I’m talking about it today is not that it’s somehow relevant again (even Morrison couldn’t do that with the epic FINAL CRISIS) but because I was always bothered by the fact that I didn’t read the whole thing. Flashforward to a few years ago and a trip to Escape Velocity, then known as Bargain Comics, which at that time had a whole space devoted to displaying bagged collections of original-issue runs for famous story arcs. There it was, the whole set, all four issues, plus the original teaser preview.

Byrne, it should be noted, spares no such thing as subtlety with this one. That’s usually the kind of thing I go for, but big epic tales certainly have their attraction, too, and very few comics properties have that to quite the same degree as Kirby’s Fourth World, the only successful, original mythology to have ever been attempted, and come back to repeatedly, not because the publisher wanted to, but because fans continually demand it. Trouble is, few fans regularly support the Fourth World, which includes Darkseid, Orion, Mister Miracle, and Mother Boxes that “ping.”

You probably have to be familiar with a lot of it to make any sense of GENESIS, and even then the story’s remarkably light, probably one of the thinnest of its kind even from that era (in contrast, Neron juicing old villains with bigger powers really doesn’t seem that cheap an excuse). The short of the short of it is that there’s a “Godwave” that’s supposed to explain superpowers, and its contracting makes said powers all wonky for a little while, and then cause some changes around the DCU (a clever way to doing some spring, or in this case fall, cleaning). It makes sweeping generalizations that really don’t hold to much scrutiny, but then, it’s far more about the Fourth World than about any of the many superheroes it brings together (and even then, the available characters seem to be a thin lot, and they really don’t do all that much except react for four issues).

In that sense, it’s pretty disappointing, but for those who do care about the Fourth World (Highfather dies in the FOURTH WORLD book during the month, an event that is barely mentioned in GENESIS), it remains a pretty entertaining and noteworthy event, one that makes even less sense for modern readers than to those who experienced it upon release, and not just because the New Gods have lain dormant since FINAL CRISIS, but still worth the effort for anyone who might nonetheless be curious, an odd link in a chain that still has great potential.

Given another opportunity (since JACK KIRBY’S FOURTH WORLD really was better than GENESIS might suggest), I’d be more than happy if John Byrne were interesting in another visit.